Accessing difficult games

Cuphead is a recent video game hit, best known for its animation inspired by 1930s cartoons, and for being extremely difficult. This has led some game critics to discuss difficulty as a design choice. Is it justified to make a game so difficult that it excludes some players from seeing all the content? This isn’t the first time game critics have tried to answer this question. Last year, people were discussing the value and possibility of an easy mode in Dark Souls.

To make it clear, nobody disputes the value of a difficult game. But if it is feasible, should the designers also offer some sort of “easy mode” to make the content accessible to players who can’t complete the normal mode?

On the face of it, it seems that actively preventing some players from seeing content only reduces the amount of joy in the world. Some players might enjoy the feeling that they are accessing content that other players cannot access, but it’s not clear that this is enough to justify making the game less accessible.

On the other hand, that difficulty may be essential to the game design, at least for the particular game in question. From the linked article about Dark Souls:

I think Dark Souls might collapse if it compromised. If there was an easy mode, people would play it and then ask those of us who’d been here all along, ‘what was all the fuss about?’ That’s what happened to me when I had to cheat my way through sections of The Witness. The joy of a solution lost, I couldn’t understand the appeal.

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A music post for 2017

2017 was a good year for me in terms of discovering new music.  You might have seen this intrude upon my blogging a few times.  I even started a separate blog for music–which I won’t link to because I’d prefer to keep my followers in the single digits.

I have a few highlights below the fold.  And yes, this stuff is thoroughly inappropriate for Christmas.

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Star Wars wars against itself

[cn: mild Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers]

I dislike mainstream movies almost categorically. They cost too much to make, which means they need to appeal to broad audiences, and it turns out that broad audiences really like Hero’s Journey stories full of standard archetypes and tropes. The original Star Wars trilogy was a case in point, so you might imagine I don’t care for it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was okay though. One of the things I liked about it was its clear rejection of the Hero’s Journey. Usually in these stories–and Star Wars stories in particular–you have the hero take a huge risk, and achieve a brilliant victory. The Last Jedi makes nods to this trope, by focusing on characters who take huge risks to strike at the enemy’s critical weakpoint. But the characters fail, and in the process they screw up the more intelligent plans of Vice Admiral Holdo. (Later, Holdo herself takes a huge risk to strike at the enemy’s weakpoint, but I won’t dwell on this bit of thematic incoherence because I’m sure someone in the comments will explain how it all makes sense.)

Because of its rejection of conventional heroism, many critics have argued that The Last Jedi has progressive themes. The Guardian calls it “triumphantly feminist“. Vanity Fair says it offers a “condemnation of mansplaining“. Another critic says “toxic masculinity is the true villain“. Even anti-feminist fans agree, resulting in some backlash.

My reaction is, The Last Jedi sure is rejecting something, but is it really toxic masculinity? The whole idea of small band of heroes taking a huge risk to achieve a linchpin victory, that’s something that mostly happens in fiction (and Star Wars in particular), not in the real world. Neither the rejection nor acceptance of that trope seems to say anything about the real world. It’s just a dispute between works of fiction.  I agree more with the critic who says The Last Jedi doesn’t care what you think about Star Wars.

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One: the universe’s favorite digit

This is a repost of an article I wrote way back in 2011.  I’m still proud of figuring this one out.

Out of all the digits, from zero to nine, one is the most common.  This has to do with the log scale.

The log scale captures an important fact that is true of many quantities in life.  Take money for instance.  If you have one dollar, then earning another dollar is great because you’ve doubled your money!  If you have a million dollars, earning another dollar does not make much of a difference.  Small changes matter less the more you already have.

This is true on a log scale too.  On a log scale, 1 is the same distance from 2 as 100 is from 200.  The higher you go up, the more the numbers all get smooshed together.  What does that mean for the digits from zero to nine?

A picture of a log scale, highlighting the regions that have 1 as their first digit (eg 1-2 and 10-20)

In the above picture, I show a log scale.  And on that scale, I highlighted in blue all the regions where 1 is the first digit of the number.  You should see that the blue regions cover more than one tenth of the log scale.  In fact, they cover about 30%.  And so, if we pick numbers randomly on the log scale, about 30% of those numbers will have 1 as their first digit.

Just for fun, let’s apply this concept on the fundamental constants of nature.  I will compare two hypotheses: [Read more…]

I am graduating

I have been hinting for months that I am close to graduating.  Well, the time has come.  I am graduating with a Ph.D. in physics.

In the immediate future, I will be unemployed.  I am taking my time looking for a job in data science.  That means I’ll find some tech company and analyze data for them.  And before you comment on that career choice, let me just say that I know more physics students moving into data science than staying in physics.  When I do find a job I probably won’t make any announcement about it.

Given that most of my time blogging has been while I was at grad school, the impact on my blogging is unknown.  I may have more free time while unemployed, but I won’t necessarily spend that time blogging.  (Note that I often take a blogging break near Christmas, and that has nothing to do with graduating.)

Ah, one thing that might make an impact on blogging, is that I will lose journal access.  I can still get physics papers on ArXiV, but most of what I’d want to blog about would be in social sciences or humanities.  So, that’s a bit tougher.

After this post, I intended to write at least a couple more blog posts about why grad school can be such a bad experience.  It’s not too late, I’ll get around to it eventually.

If you are unwise enough to wonder what my dissertation is about, I’ll tell you.

I worked on photoemission spectroscopy of cuprate superconductors.  Photoemission spectroscopy is the technique of shining light on a material, and measuring the electrons that come out.  The technique tells us about how the electrons were behaving in the material.  A superconductor is material in a special state where electricity is conducted with zero resistance.  Cuprates are a particular class of superconductors.  Cuprates are famous for being in a superconducting state up to relatively high temperatures (but “high temperature” still means minus ~170 degrees Celsius).  Cuprates are not fully understood, and have been a longstanding mystery since they were discovered in the 80s.

Photoemission spectroscopy of cuprates sounds very specific, but it’s a well-established and competitive field of research.

Link Roundup: December 2017

Unpacking Some of the Extreme Distress I Experienced Last Week – Some of you may have heard about the murder-suicide of Scott Smith, who was a podcaster for Recovering From Religion.  Well, here is an account from the cohost of the podcast.  I think this could be helpful if you knew Scott Smith, or if you just want to learn about trauma.

Cuphead: The Fake Outrage (video) – Anti-feminist gamergate-types have recently been outraged over people calling Cuphead (a video game) racist and ableist.  Except… nobody is saying that.  Amongst game critics, there has been discussion of the racist history behind the animation style used by Cuphead, and there has also been discussion about it’s high difficulty, and what that might mean for accessibility.  That really isn’t the same, and Shaun goes into depth about it.  I recommend Shaun’s YouTube channel if you need an antidote to anti-feminist and alt-right YouTubers.

Video game difficulty and accessibility is an interesting topic, maybe I will write about it in the future.

The Fine-Tuning Argument and Base Rate Fallacy – The author is not a physicist, but articulates very well some of the reasons why as a physicist I am very skeptical of fine-tuning arguments.  Predicting how the universe would look with different fundamental constants sounds like an incredibly difficult question!  And the more “fine-tuned” the universe is, the more difficult the question is.

BTW, the author mentions William Lane Craig’s claim that the gravitational constant is sensitive to a change of one part in 10^60.  I would not believe Craig’s claims without independent investigation.  I cannot stress this enough, William Lane Craig is an extremely unreliable source of information on math and physics, even on matters that are neutral with respect to his apologetic arguments.  Seriously, if you’re going to believe in God, you might be better off just believing in God rather than accepting Craig’s arguments, because then at least you will only be wrong about one thing.

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Republicans screwing over grad students

For those of you who are in grad school, you’ve likely already heard that the Republicans’ proposed tax plan hurts grad students. Specifically, grad students would be taxed on their tuition waivers. On top of being bad for grad students, it simply doesn’t make sense to me. As far as I’m concerned the tuition waiver is just an exchange of money between the grant providers and my university. I never see the money. So why should I be taxed on it?

I intend to graduate before any of this could possibly affect me personally. But I went ahead and estimated how much additional tax I would have to pay. In 2016 I earned about $33k, and paid $3k in federal taxes. I had a tuition waiver of $13k, so the proposed tax plan would treat my total income as $46k. My marginal tax rate was 15%, so if I paid taxes on the tuition waiver, my taxes would go up from $3k to $5k. Now, I’m omitting some details, as the tax proposal also shuffles around tax brackets and deductions. But some students at UC Berkeley made a calculator, and it comes out the same.

For some grad students it can be even worse. For example, the calculator estimates that for a typical MIT student, taxes would go up by 240%, amounting to more than a third of their true income. The reason is that MIT has a higher tuition than my own public university.

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